For most of its two decades of existence, Blue Origin was like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in the children’s book by Roald Dahl.
It was a rocket company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the billionaire who had created Amazon. So much was known. What the company actually did was shrouded in mystery.
“But everyone wanted to come in,” laughed Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, an aviation consulting firm.
Mr. Bezos announced on Tuesday that he will step down as CEO of Amazon this summer and become CEO. In the letter to Amazon employees, he said he wanted to spend time and energy on other passions and listed Blue Origin among them.
Does that mean Mr. Bezos will take on a bigger daily role in his rocket company?
“If Jeff chose to spend more time in Blue Origin in the next phase of his career, it would be very good for Blue,” said Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin from 2003 to 2017. “He provides good intelligence, great operational expertise. and great mission passion for the business. ”
Mr. Meyerson noted that Bezos’ other ventures include the Bezos Earth Fund, which last year provided a $ 100 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund to build and operate a methane-detecting satellite. Amazon, where Mr. Bezos will continue to be involved, is developing Project Kuiper, a constellation of satellites to transmit Internet services to Earth.
“It’s clear that space will be a prominent theme,” Meyerson said.
Mr. Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 – two years before Elon Musk started the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX.
But while Mr. Musk and SpaceX have already built a thriving business – launching satellites and NASA astronauts to orbit and develop a huge rocket called Starship that is meant to take people to Mars one day – Blue Origin seems to be lying.
In its early days, the company only occasionally offered drips of news. Journalists will call Blue Origin’s PR company to get a perfect word “refused to comment” from the company.
In November 2006, a gumdrop-shaped test vessel successfully rose a modest 285 feet into the air and then gently returned to the ground at a test site in West Texas. Mr. Bezos reported the success in a blog post on the Blue Origin website – a month and a half later.
There were no other updates in four and a half years before Mr. Bezos acknowledged that a test car had crashed, but only after The Wall Street Journal had reported the error.
Over the years, Blue Origin became less secretive. Five years ago, Mr. Bezos welcomed a group of journalists to a tour of the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., A few miles south of Seattle. During lunch, he was happy to answer questions. “It’s my total joy,” he said then. “I hope you can feel that I like this.”
Since then, Blue Origin has grown rapidly. It has a NASA contract to develop a lander that can take astronauts to the surface of the moon in a few years. It sells rocket engines to another rocket company, the United Launch Alliance. It costs customers to fly scientific experiments on New Shepard, a suborbital spacecraft.
But they are so far modest in scope. Blue Origin has not yet started sales for New Shepard’s primary business – taking tourists on short trips to the edge of space – or even had people on board some of the test flights so far.
New Glenn, a larger rocket that will compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse, will not take off on the maiden voyage until at least later this year.
“They have big plans, but they have not yet launched any people on board any of their craft,” said Laura Seward Forczyk, owner of Astralytical, a space consulting firm.
Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos have periodically spread about their rockets and whether humans should aim for Mars – Mr. Musk’s ultimate destination – or build free-floating colonies as Mr. Bezos envisions.
In an interview with Maureen Dowd last year, Musk praised Bezos and Blue Origin: “The pace of progress is too slow and the number of years he has left is not enough, but I’m still happy that he does what he does with Blue Origin. ”
This does not necessarily mean that Blue Origin is far behind.
During his trip with journalists in 2016, Mr. Bezos pointed to a picture in the central area of the headquarters. It showed two turtles holding an hourglass and staring up at the cosmos. Below was Blue Origin’s motto: Gradatim ferocites, which is Latin for “step by step, violent.”
Blue Origin can hope to prove to be the turtle of the fable where slowly and steadily finally wins over the fast hare. Mr. Bezos’ wealth – he has sold billions of dollars in Amazon shares to finance Blue Origin – has allowed Blue Origin to follow a methodical, long-term plan without having to generate large revenues in the short term.
Mr. Bezos has talked in more detail about a future where millions of people live and work in space. The goal of Blue Origin, he said, is to help people get there.
“We are going to build a path to space,” Bezos said during a presentation in 2019 when he unveiled a design for a lunar lander. “And then wonderful things will happen.”
Blue Origin now has a rocket engine plant in Huntsville, Ala., And huge facilities just outside NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the installation of the New Glenn rockets.
In 2016, Bezos said he spent one day a week in Blue Origin. Although he studied electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton as a student, Mr. Bezos let his engineers talk about the technical aspects of the Blue Origin spacecraft to journalists.
On the other hand, Mr. Musk, with the title of chief engineer, is deeply involved in engineering details in SpaceX, although Gwynne Shotwell, the president and CEO, handles much of the company’s daily details.
Thus, when Blue Origin shifts from research and development to a pursuit of revenue and profit, it may now be an ideal time to bring in someone who has Amazon’s business successes.
“He is a businessman who knows how to make money,” Christensen said. “Maybe this is the moment where it’s just too tempting for him to stay away.”
She added: “Amazon was like no other company before that. If Jeff Bezos is really going to spend more time on Blue, I wonder if it’s going to be like no other launch company before it. ”